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Commissioner Don Garber: 'It's been a very good year' for MLS

On Friday, Garber and I had a wide-ranging conversation whose topics included the landmarks of the 2011 season, his reaction to Fox winning the World Cup TV rights, Sepp Blatter's recent comments, MLS's support for players who decide to come out, the impact of the prospective sale of a portion of MLS's marketing arm and the possibility that some MLS teams will play each other three times next season while some may not meet each other at all.

There's a lot to digest here, but it's worth the time if you're a soccer fan. Let's dive in: We've sat down every year at MLS Cup for a while. Compared to when we were sitting here last year, what would you say is the league's biggest accomplishment in the past year?

Garber: The best accomplishment is that there's more than one. It isn't just about achieving attendance and ratings growth, it's the combination of so many different things that have come together that have raised the water overall water level for MLS. We have the highest number of reporters and international media attending our final. There's more media coverage, commercial activation and interest in our championship game than in any other Cup we've had. I will feel good about where we are when we're not asked: Has MLS finally made it? The sports and media community will accept that, and then we like other leagues will talk about individual accomplishments for the season that we've completed.

2011 was arguably the best year in the history of the league on all measures: the respect for the league here and abroad, our attendance and TV ratings, our new deal with NBC, a continually improving quality of play, massive popularity in the expansion markets. It's been a very good year. You could almost call this Phil Anschutz Week in some ways. He's an owner of both teams in the final. He built the stadium here. He built L.A. Live, which is hosting events around the game. And his name is on the championship trophy. We aren't going to hear from him this week, so I'll ask you: Can you put in perspective the impact Phil Anschutz has had on this league?

Garber: Phil is our George Halas. Without a doubt MLS and sport of soccer in America is not what it is today without the neverending commitment and belief that Phil Anschutz has in us and the sport. It sort of warms my heart to have a weekend where he can in his own way cherish all that he has contributed. The Home Depot Center set the stage for soccer stadiums in our country. The L.A. Galaxy as a global brand came out of his and Tim Leiweke's vision for creating a premier soccer team in America. The vision that he had for downtown L.A. that all of us are walking around taking for granted: This is the Las Vegas of Southern California. All of these have sort of come together, and I hope Phil has a smile on his face and a bounce in his step this weekend. Knowing him like I do, I don't believe he will. He will in his own quiet way take a step back and feel good about everything that he's done for the sport.

He doesn't think about legacies, he doesn't look for attention. He's not doing any of this for a pat on the back. But every soccer fan in North America, if they ever happen to have the chance to meet him should walk over to him and say thank you. I was floored when Fox won the English-language rights for World Cups '18 and '22 ahead of your current partners ESPN and NBC. Did it surprise you?

Garber: I was surprised. Pleasantly surprised, but surprised nonetheless. I think anytime a broadcaster makes massive financial commitments to broadcast the sport of soccer in America that's good for MLS and good for Soccer United Marketing because we own so many soccer content rights. I think ESPN's done a great job with the World Cup and helped drive a lot of the value that FIFA was able to achieve in the new Fox deal. But I believe wholeheartedly that the commitments that Fox and Telemundo [with Spanish-language rights] have made are good for us. We now have five players: Fox, ESPN, Telemundo, Univisión and NBC that are committed to the sport. More outlets for us to sell our rights, more potential partnerships on new programming.

I think it's the beginning of a new era for soccer programming in the United States. Think of the possibilities for how many more shoulder programs we can have and lifestyle programs and MLS behind the scenes and studio shows and highlight shows. All of these things are good for MLS, and the value of soccer programming has just grown exponentially. We bought the World Cup '02 and '06 rights [with SUM] for $40 million in 2001, and they were sold for $500 million on the English-language side for '18 and '22. That's pretty amazing. I was told that ESPN's bid for '18 and '22 included a stipulation that it would continue to support MLS, just like their previous bid did. Did Fox's bid include a stipulation that it would support MLS starting in 2015?

Garber: I don't know that there was ever a stipulation. I know we had conversations with ESPN, NBC, Telemundo and Fox about continuing the support for MLS and U.S. Soccer. I'm very confident either with the World Cup broadcaster or those that aren't broadcasting the World Cup, MLS and U.S. Soccer will have a very, very positive future on broadcast TV in the United States. There have been reports that you're about to sell 25 percent of SUM for up to $150 million to Providence Equity Partners. What are the chances of that happening -- and that the money could go back into investing in players?

Garber: We've never confirmed or denied that. But the fact there have been rumors of a private equity firm investing in SUM speaks to the increased value of soccer in North America. And should something like that happen, the distribution would certainly be used to help grow the game. Shortly we'll be able to comment on it more publicly. I don't know if you saw my proposal for how to restructure the MLS postseason, but what do you think of having a group stage in the MLS playoffs?

Garber: (Nods.) We've looked at every possible playoff iteration you could imagine. I read comments from our fans and media pundits, and they think the MLS office is sitting there with their head in the sand or their face in a computer and hasn't looked at every possible playoff format. Because we have. We have a number of objectives that need to be achieved. The format needs to fit in the broader schedule footprint. It needs to take into consideration what we're trying to achieve driving television and attendance revenue, taking into consideration stadium availability, our commitments to the U.S. Open Cup and CONCACAF, trying to take off for the FIFA dates and so many variables that requires us to have a full-time schedule czar and a consultant who works with a variety of computer models and algorithms to feed it in and come out with a format for the regular season and the playoffs that makes the most sense. I think our fans will see we've come up with a format that will work for us in 2012. There are questions about various potential owners for a second New York City-area team, and who might be here this weekend. Names like Curtis Martin, Seamus O'Brien, even Chuck Blazer. What can you say about those possibilities?

Garber: We remain focused on having the 20th MLS team in New York. We've got a full-time staff working on stadium projects. We've hired a number of consultants to help us with land-use issues and fast-tracking the process so we can get it done as soon as possible. We believe we have a number of sites that are viable, but it's perhaps the most difficult market in the world to develop a 13-acre sports project. The issue for us won't be finding a good owner. The issue is whether we'll have a stadium site that will work and provide the environment our fans have come to expect in the stadiums we have across MLS. There are a number of potential ownership groups, and a couple of them are here. But the challenge with this project is not about finding an owner, even with a record-setting expansion fee, even with the fact that the stadium will be very expensive to construct. The challenge is finalizing the stadium plan. And the league is taking the lead on that aspect of the project. So it's possible to do that without knowing who the owner is?

Garber: Yeah. That's how bullish we are that we'll find an owner. If we get the right stadium plan in place, ownership groups will line up at the door. This week FIFA president Sepp Blatter said any racist abuse on soccer fields should be settled with a handshake. He has now apologized, but what is your take on that?

Garber: FIFA as an organization has been very aggressive in taking anti-racism stances and using their big events to try to raise awareness for the need to eradicate racism from soccer fields at all levels. I applaud FIFA for doing that. I hope the president's comments were taken out of context. I will say here as the leader of MLS: Both in our offices at the league and at the club level and on our fields we have a zero-tolerance policy for racism. I know for sure it is an important issue for us to take a very public and aggressive stance, and we'll continue to do that. You're on the board of U.S. Soccer. Are you OK with U.S. Soccer voting for Blatter in June's presidential election?

Garber: As a member of the board I support our president Sunil Gulati. It was his view that the needs of the federation would be served best by supporting president Blatter. And I support Sunil and therefore the board's position. You said you want MLS to be one of the world's top leagues by 2022. You have to be aware of what that will take -- and that those aspirations make MLS different from any league in the world outside of Europe's top four leagues. What are the milestones that need to happen in the next two, four, six and eight years for MLS to become one of the world's top leagues by 2022? Could you lay it out for me?

Garber: We have to have measures, and those measures are the quality of our play, the passion of our fans, the state of our business and the environments in which we present our games and train our players. It starts with those points. We don't believe that we need to establish specific benchmarks, that our attendance needs to be X or our ratings need to be Y. That said, we need to be very focused in our decision-making to continually try to improve our quality of play, to ensure that our fans are passionate about our players and their teams and are growing in size and scope to deliver the attendance and ratings which at least will have us in a position to say that we're among the best.

We're not saying we're going to be the English Premier League or La Liga. We just want to be viewed like those leagues are viewed in the minds of not just the soccer fan but the sports business community. We set that goal before the World Cup bid was made and lost, and I think it would have been weak for us to walk away from that vision just because the World Cup won't be here 10 years from now. When do you expect to do the next big TV deals for 2015 and beyond? And how do you get ratings up between now and then?

Garber: Two different questions. First, we've got a number of years left on our agreements and continue to work closely with ESPN and Univisión and NBC to schedule our games and promote them effectively and hopefully deliver increased ratings. Our ratings grew across our networks this year, but we continue to strive hard to grow our audience. We've got plenty of time over the next couple years to figure that out. With so many soccer games available from around the world on U.S. TV each week, what can you do to grow your ratings and close the gap on top European leagues as a TV product?

Garber: There's no easy answer to that, no short-term solution. It's a continued commitment to a better environment to broadcast our games. We've seen that in places like Portland and Kansas City and Philadelphia and Seattle and Vancouver and L.A. and even New York, our games look pretty darn good and are attracting growing audiences in those markets. But we also need to continue to invest in star players and have some young American players that people can believe in. I believe that mix of domestic players with international stars has been working for us. We'll continue to make commitments in those areas. I think that will help deliver increased television ratings. Last week David Testo became the first MLS player, current or former, to reveal that he was gay. There are obviously gay players in this league right now who have not come out publicly. Do you wish they would feel comfortable enough to do so, and how much public support would the league provide them if they did?

Garber: I thought David's coming out should have been a non-story, and I look forward to living in a world and working in a business where someone's sexual preference is irrelevant. The fact that it was a story that did not garner headlines wasn't just because it was a soccer player. It's because society is beginning thankfully to care less about what somebody's preference is. We are a league that is very focused on diversity. We go through an exercise with every hire to ensure that we have interviewed a diverse mix of racial and ethnic candidates. I'm really proud that we represent in our offices a league that reflects the global nature of our sport. As it relates to our players, we have more international players and ethnic diversity than any other sports league in North America. That's a function of being a global game. Help me out with something. Kansas City builds a new soccer stadium that turns into one of the best soccer atmospheres in the league. But Dallas and Colorado build stadiums and the atmosphere is nothing like Kansas City. How do you explain the difference?

Garber: Every market is different and has its own idiosyncrasies. There are so many factors that go into whether or not all teams can achieve as quickly as Kansas City has a total repositioning. I believe Dallas is improving. They had a handful of sellouts this year. [Dallas president and CEO] Doug Quinn is doing a great job of turning that market around and I have full confidence in him and the Hunts that Dallas will be a terrific soccer market. Colorado is beginning to grow their supporter culture and they are improving. It's very easy to look at one market and compare it to another and not fully understand what goes into driving success or what challenges a market has to improve their position. It's not a simple cause-effect, build a stadium and they will come. It has a lot of different factors that need to be considered. Similar question with L.A. and New York. This week came word that L.A. has a new 10-year, $55 million local TV deal for the Galaxy, which is big news. But New York can't get anything close to that for the Red Bulls, even though New York gets better local ratings than the Galaxy. How do you explain that?

Garber: In this case there's a dynamic happening here in L.A. with a new sports channel being launched and aggressively competing with existing channels to buy sports rights. If that dynamic existed in New York, I believe there would be a massive auction for Red Bulls rights. Should somebody launch a sports channel in a market that has four sports channels, then the Red Bulls would be in the position the Galaxy are in. If the Galaxy wins on Sunday and becomes the first team with a Designated Player to win the MLS Cup final, could we be seeing a paradigm shift toward the teams that spend more money finally winning in this league?

Garber: I don't believe so at all. The beauty of our system is that you need to make decisions about how you allocate your resources. We've had the DP rule for five years now, and should the Galaxy win it would be the first time a team with a DP has earned the Cup. I think you need a lot more than one year to create a pattern. Toronto is spending $20 million on a youth development academy. Who are the other leaders in the league at this point when it comes to youth development investment?

Garber: This is a new endeavor for the league, but the amount of energy behind this throughout the league is growing exponentially. Toronto's commitment is almost unprecedented. I think it shows their belief in this sport and their desire to really create a top-tier professional soccer club. While they haven't achieved as much success on the field as they would like, their fans should know MLSE is committed to being best in class on the competitive side of things. New York is doing an incredible job. They're embarking on finalizing a plan for a training facility and academy that will be a similar type of financial commitment. They've got a very good academy, one that's developed one of America's most promising young players in Juan Agudelo. Philadelphia is doing a good job. So is Dallas, which more homegrown players on its roster [6] than any other club. L.A. is getting deeply engaged in the business. I don't think there's any club that's not focused on development. But clearly there's a handful that have been more aggressive than others. I hate to pick on New York, but that organization still hasn't won a trophy in the 16 years of this league. Some odd things happened this year with a team that had one of the two highest payrolls in the league. What's up with New York?

Garber: It's hard for me to comment on that. I spend a lot of time with [general manager] Erik Solér, and I'm very supportive of their new chief business officer Chris Heck. New York is a tough market. It's difficult to break through in that market, though I do think that team has far more awareness and credibility than MLS has ever had in the New York metro area. Their team is going to require some time to gel, and I think as a relatively new ownership group will have to continue to evolve to understand the MLS system. But I believe in Red Bull New York, and from the time I spent with [Red Bull founder] Dietrich Mateschitz and their technical and business staff, they're capable guys. The fans and media want instant success, and I look at it over a more mid- to long-term time frame. How big is your new officiating initiative going to be?

Garber: I don't know if the description should be "big." I will say our officials are better than people give us credit for. I'm not saying that because I have to, it's because we review every game. There will be calls that cause broadcasters to carry on and scream and yell, and we with the benefit of video review know that the majority of them are correct. Now soccer's a game that's imperfect, in my view unfortunately so, and therefore you're not going to get every call right, and not every performance is going to be perfect.

That said, we believe we've got a lot of work to do to evolve the way our officials are assessed and managed and trained and scheduled so that we can make their jobs easier and develop the officiating corps in North America in the same way we've been developing soccer players. Our federation is committed to working closely with us, and we're great partners in this area like we are in many other areas. They recognize there's enormous scrutiny on the league and criticism about their officials, and while I understand the restrictions that exist in the world of soccer in terms of what role the professional league can play versus what the NHL and MLB and NBA and the NFL can do, we're going to try to evolve our partnership with the federation so we can ultimately get better. It's a big initiative and one that will require a lot of financial resources, both on our part and the federation's part. I think we'll be on a good path. I'm very excited about it. How close are we to goal-line technology or instant replay being used or tested in MLS?

Garber: I'd love to be able to do it tomorrow, but it's not my call or the league's call. It'd driven by FIFA and folks in Scotland [IFAB] that make these decisions. I think that's unfortunate. I think the game needs to evolve. It's very difficult with technology today, which provides a fan the opportunity to see a replay from a TV broadcast while their sitting in the stadium, and have the sense as to whether the call was right or wrong, and not give in my opinion the official the same tools. I get the fact the powers that be in the sport don't agree with me and think I'm just a Yank that doesn't understand the game, but I hope we can be part of pushing the envelope here. I think as the dust settles with some of the things that have been going on with FIFA and CONCACAF that perhaps we can start pushing some initiatives. I don't have much confidence we'll be able to break through to the powers to allow us to test some new technology, but I think it would be good for our fans, our league and for the sport if we were able to do so. What are the chances of D.C. United playing in Washington D.C. in 2012?

Garber: Very strong. Very strong. I think my comments were misconstrued as if we're trying to move the team. That couldn't be further from the truth. We need to find a stadium solution there, and the folks we're trying to work with don't seem to understand how unfair it is for D.C. United's ownership and their fans and players to be playing in a substandard stadium with a ridiculous deal that doesn't even provide them with in my opinion the basics that teams and players and fans deserve. That said, Kevin Payne and Will Chang are working hard to try and find some solutions, whether they're a better deal with RFK Stadium or a stadium project in D.C. or a stadium project somewhere in the area.

But something needs to happen there. I'd like to see fans come together there like they did in Philly and Portland and almost any market across this country and really bang their fists and start screaming loudly at their political leaders that their team and this league in this sport deserves better. How about Occupy RFK? Are you OK with the possibility of New York and Los Angeles only meeting once in the regular season next year?

Garber: If we end up with a schedule that's conference-based, it would have to require that certain teams would only play each other once and their fans might not be able to see that team at home. But we have to build a league that has a schedule and format that works, that creates compelling competition that's fair and is going to drive TV ratings and create real relevance in local markets. And while New York and LA is a great TV property and an important matchup for our fans, we can't set a schedule around trying to achieve that. Because that matchup could be two years from now New York and Philly. Then it's not an issue. It could be L.A. and Chivas or Seattle and Portland, and then it's not an issue. We are trying to create a format that will drive more opportunities for fans to see that must-have game at home that doesn't require it to be New York and L.A. Is it possible you may have some teams not playing each other at all in the regular season next year?

Garber: Yeah. Just by the fact it'll be unbalanced. That's possible. That sounds like a bummer.

Garber: But this goes back to: The amount of vitriol and nastiness that I get from core fans on this issue doesn't surprise me because I love the passion. But as a passionate fan I would hope they'd understand what we're trying to achieve, which is a league that's more popular, more valuable and that growing attendance and TV ratings. Just to have a balanced schedule for its own sake, to be like the English Premier League and affect the quality of our competition and the opportunity to grow our fan base doesn't make sense to me.

It would require 38 games that will require our teams to travel 20, 30, 40 and 50,000 miles across two countries. Requiring more play on FIFA dates, playing earlier in March and later in the fall pushing into December. All things which affect the quality of our games. What we're focused on is having a quality competition, not just being balanced because that's what they do in the Premier League. We want to be a North American dialect for the world's game. At some time we'll get to the point where the people who are fans in the U.S. and Canada will embrace our identity and believe in this league because it's in their home and not think it has to be like England.

I speak to [former MLS deputy commissioner and now Arsenal chief executive] Ivan Gazidis. He is home at night on almost every single game that Arsenal plays throughout the Premier League season. He is having dinner with his family. This concept of a conference-based schedule is going to be a requirement when we have 20 teams. So we want to get on it now. We're asking for our fans' support. We're making this decision because we believe it's best for the competition. It will create an environment that will make our league better, our games more competitive and raise the quality of our play. And we will have to sacrifice a connection to what happens in England. It's time to get over it. NBC Sports/Versus starts broadcasting MLS games in 2012. What should fans be excited about?

Garber: We haven't gotten yet into a lot of detail with them. There have been production meetings. They're deeply engaged in finalizing their production team and their on-air talent. They're working hard on their schedule and adding even more network games. I know the NBC folks well, and they are masters of the marriage between marketing, programming and production. I believe they'll do a terrific job. They're new to the sport, at least on the domestic side. I am empowered by their aggressive World Cup bid with Telemundo. I will say this: Fox has done a great job. This is not about not wanting to go forward with Fox because they were not worthy. They're doing an incredible job. We'll remain very close with them. I had lunch with the president of Fox Sports yesterday. It's more about at the time we made the decision, we believed that NBC would help get us to the next level. We look forward to starting a new relationship with them.